The first half of this year’s Wrestling Dontaku saw Taiji Ishimori challenge for Dragon Lee’s junior heavyweight title in a thriller – while we got the tease of a new arrival to New Japan.

From the Fukuoka Convention Centre we’ve got a four-man commentary booth of Kevin Kelly, Gino Gambino, Rocky Romero and Chris Charlton. Someone watched 205 Live this week. I’m having to watch this in parts, seeing the last two matches first then the undercard…

Toa Henare, Yota Tsuji & Yuya Uemura vs. Tomoaki Honma, Shota Umino & Ren Narita
We open with a typical “Young Lions and more experienced head” tag, which we’ve seen so many of on this tour…

Tsuji and Narita start us off, scrambling on the mat for a hold before Shota Umino came in and found himself on the wrong end of some strikes. Things pick up when Honma tags in and chops away at Tsuji, taking him down for a Kokeshi that finds its mark. Hey, it’s got a better hit rate on those Young Lions! A single leg crab from Honma’s relinquished as Uemura tried to run in and break it up. Narita’s in with a cravat and a headlock takedown on Tsuji, who needed saving by Henare… but still he remained isolated as Honma’s back to throw more chops. Poor Tsuji. Umino’s brought back in with a Boston crab, but Tsuji crawls to the ropes for the quick break.

A wild forearm from Umino nearly puts Tsuji away, but a desperation back body drop finally gives him an opening after five minutes of having his arse kicked. In comes Henare to take out his frustrations with forearms and chops to Umino, while Honma got some too as the Kiwi cleared house.

Henare bounces Umino with a suplex for a near-fall, but Umino’s able to block a spinebuster as he returned with a dropkick instead. Tags bring in Narita and Uemura to complete the set, and Uemura quickly forces Narita into the ropes as an armbar on Narita’s bad shoulder nearly forced a submission. Narita remained targeted and triple-teamed, ending with a Uemura dropkick in the corner for a near-fall, before Uemura went back to the Fujiwara-ish armbar.

Again, Narita forces a save in the ropes, as the ring filled… then cleared, only for Narita to catch Uemura with the bridging overhead belly to belly out of nowhere for the win. Big fan of Narita hitting that out of nowhere as a death blow, but I was not too keen on Tsuji selling for the first five minutes without any help. Narita’s putting in a good case for “future star” with that finish. ***

Suzuki-gun (Minoru Suzuki, El Desperado, Yoshinobu Kanemaru & TAKA Michinoku) vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, YOSHI-HASHI, Tiger Mask & Ryusuke Taguchi
We’ve no date for their match, but we’re still building up to Suzuki and Liger with this multi-man, and yeah, we’ve a jumpstart. Who knew?

Suzuki and Liger start on the outside, with Liger still in his entrance cape as he manages to whip Suzuki chest-first into the guard tails. TAKA takes it too as Kanemaru and YOSHI-HASHI stay in the ring, with the latter hitting a Head Hunter before Taguchi directed traffic as everyone ganged up on Kanemaru. Kanemaru manages to turn it around as Suzuki-gun surround Taguchi… leading to him offering his scrum hat. Instead he gets a beating, as the match again spilled to the outside. Taguchi had to dive in to break a count-out, but he’s quickly roughed up by Suzuki and a chair on the apron while Kevin Kelly suddenly burst into Peter Griffin sighing after he had his own run-in with Suzuki.

Eventually a hip attack from Taguchi gives him a breather, but Suzuki’s right back on top of him, running in with a PK for a near-fall. Liger’s in, but he ends up getting taken down off the top rope and into an armbar… but he lands right by the ropes, which didn’t matter much as Suzuki held firm. Some stomps from Suzuki keep Liger down, but Liger mounts a comeback, exchanging chops with Suzuki before a he was forced to back body drop away a Gotch piledriver. Suzuki’s right back in with a running knee, as tags take us to TAKA and Tiger Mask, with the latter having to fight the numbers game before nearly pinning TAKA with a crucifix. TAKA throws in a running knee for a near-fall as the ring fills… then clears, as one last flurry saw Tiger Mask come close with a Tiger Driver.

As we hear Liger’s pained screams on the outside, at the hands of Suzuki, TAKA Michinoku hit back picks up a rare win with a Michinoku driver on Tiger Mask. Decent, with the Liger/Suzuki stuff once again the highlight. **¾

Things continue after the match as Suzuki attacked Shota Umino, before he and Liger had a stand-off with some chairs in hand. Liger throws it away, so Suzuki just launches the chair straight at Yota Tsuji. Poor Young Lions.

Togi Makabe, Toru Yano & Will Ospreay vs. Bullet Club ((Guerrillas of Destiny (Tama Tonga & Tanga Loa) & Hikuleo)
With the Bullet Club celebrating their sixth birthday, would the defeated challengers for the Guerrillas’ tag titles be a party pooper here?

They bust out their birthday kimonos again, and we’ve another jump start as the Guerrillas tried to stop Yano from running his usual playbook. They fail, at first, as Yano undoes the turnbuckle padding before he raked their eyes… and got taken down with said pad, before Hikuleo got some revenge with some chops. Yano gets thrown into the exposed corner, before he gets chopped (“for the GIF”), as the Bullet Club looked to be taking him way too lightly. Eventually, Yano reversed a whip into the corner, but still ended up taking it before he got free with a hair pull… and finally tagged in Makabe. Mounted punches away Tanga Loa, but Makabe quickly ends up on the back foot as Hikuleo returned to try clotheslining his way through Makabe. Ospreay’s in to take Tama outside, before he turned his focus onto Hikuleo, only to handspring into Jado’s Kendo stick shot. OW.

From there, Hikuleo dumps Ospreay with a Tongan Swing for a near-fall… an attempted OsCutter’s caught and returned with a clothesline to flip Ospreay inside-out for another near-fall, only for Hikuleo to get caught with the OsCutter anyway for the win. This only picked up in the final stretch as Ospreay and Hikuleo continue to work well together. I’m done with the GOD/Yano & Makabe pairing now though. **¼

Los Ingobernables de Japon (Tetsuya Naito, BUSHI & Shingo Takagi) vs. Roppongi 3K (SHO & YOH) & Kota Ibushi
This is a change – these guys aren’t in the main event having to drag up a show!

YOH gets the upper hand on BUSHI early on as the “champion team” had the upper hand. Ibushi comes in to pepper BUSHI with kicks like he was nothing, but Naito rushes into dropkick Ibushi away after he’d landed on BUSHI’s knees from a moonsault. Ah well. Naito tags in to (legitimately) put some boots to BUSHI, before he pulled him into an over the knee reverse DDT, then an Axel Dieter Special as the target was clearly Ibushi’s neck.

After Ibushi made the ropes, Shingo tagged in to keep up the beating, which led to Naito returning with a Combinacion Cabron as these interactions seemed strangely low-key. An attempted low dropkick from Naito ended up turning into a stomp as Ibushi Goomba stomp’d through him on the mat, as we then got tags to SHO and Shingo. Yep, the pace picks up! Missing with a clothesline, Shingo’s then caught with a spear as SHO looked for a deadlift German, but he escapes with elbows before a clothesline put SHO down. SHO rebounded with a suplex for a near-fall, before a chop battle broke out, albeit briefly, as SHO sends Shingo back into the ropes with some elbows, before he responded to Shingo’s snap German suplex with another clothesline.

A tag’s made in to YOH, who comes close with a Falcon arrow on Shingo, before SHO came in to land a pair of leaping knees to Shingo. An attempt at the 3K’s avoided by Shingo, who then landed a double suplex… only to tag out to BUSHI. Hmm. After landing a missile dropkick and a DDT, BUSHI almost takes the win, before YOH countered a neckbreaker with a Dragon screw. Ibushi gets the tag in and nearly puts BUSHI away with a moonsault, before Naito cuts off a Last Ride attempt. The German suplex doesn’t work as Ibushi hits a double Pele kick to take out Shingo and Naito, leaving BUSHI alone for a one-man fight back… which ended when he took a face kick and a Bomaye knee ahead if the Kamigoye. Pin-eater in pin-eating shock, and that’s the win for Ibushi as we still wait for the date for his defence against Naito. A fun match, but this didn’t seem to get the crowd going too much. ***¼

After the match, Ibushi took the mic to challenge Naito to pick a date… but instead, Naito just walks away as we’re left to fill in the blanks. Tranquilo.

Bullet Club (Jay White, Bad Luck Fale & Chase Owens) vs. Hirooki Goto, Juice Robinson & Mikey Nicholls
All of these matches have already had their pay-off, so why are we getting this combination? At least freshen stuff up and not repeat the house show matches here!

Commentary’s talking about who Juice Robinson’ll pick for his next title defence, as we started with Nicholls and Fale. The initial series see Fale take Nicholls into the corner, before the Aussie took him down to a knee with a clothesline, before Chase Owens ran in and took a back body drop as the Bullet Club were stuttering here. They swing things round by pulling their opponents to the outside, with everyone taking the crowd barriers. Nicholls beats the count-out, but he’s taken into the corner for some chokes from Fale as the “Tongan Massage Parlour” kept Nicholls on the mat. Chase is in to clobber him with elbows and some sorta-Dusty punches, before Jay White comes in to come close with a neckbreaker.

A chinlock from White stretches Nicholls some more, before White’s attempt at a Saito suplex ended with Nicholls elbowing free… only for White to clear the apron so he couldn’t tag out. There’s a quick DDT from Mikey, as he finally made a tag out to Goto… who charges through the Bullet Club. White manages to snuff out Goto with a Saito suplex as Chase came in to try and pick apart the bones with a Package Piledriver. Goto shoves it away, but can’t avoid an enziguiri, nor a back elbow, before he finally reversed a suplex. A tag’s made to bring in Juice, who flattened Chase with a back senton and some Dusty punches in the corner, before a spinebuster levels Chase.

Juice rolls Owens into a Boston crab, but that’s quickly broken up as the Bullet Club triple-team him into a Chase backbreaker for a near-fall. A Jewel Heist lariat’s ducked, then landed as Juice almost took the pin, before Juice countered a package piledriver with a leg lariat, only for his Pulp Friction attempt to spark a Parade of Moves. Another lariat from Chase drops Juice, who then had to fight out of a package piledriver, landing a Left Hand of God before hitting Pulp Friction for the win. This was fine for what it was, but I’m beyond fatigued with this match. **½

After the match, Juice Robinson celebrated by himself, which is usually a tip-off for something. In this case, he was interrupted by a video…

…teasing the arrival of a “death rider” (hmm), with a Union Jack on his leather jacket (hmmm), who was watching a Juice Robinson match while carving not-quite the logo of the Extinction Rebellion group with a knife/knuckleduster into a bar. Whomever this guy is, he’ll be here on June 5 as “time’s up” for Juice. Cue speculation, with the initial guesses being either Chris Brookes or a returning and repackaged Tomoyuki Oka/Great O-Kharn.

Los Ingobernables de Japon (EVIL & SANADA) vs. Kazuchika Okada & Tomohiro Ishii
These are tomorrow’s feature matches, so why not smash them together? In another universe this could have been a World Tag League match, at least, back when they didn’t take the top stars off the tour!

SANADA and Okada start us off, as Okada opens with a side headlock, before a lucha-inspired series ended with Okada ducking a moonsault as they went for their own, and each other’s finishers early. Tags follow as Ishii and EVIL were nice and gentle with each other… nah, they traded shoulder tackles and chops, with EVIL drawing the proverbial first blood.

The pair then trade elbows back and forth as the crowd clap in unison, before Ishii ran into a sidewalk slam. SANADA took the opportunity to charge Okada off the barriers as they had a tussle on the outside, all while EVIL tried to chop through an only-too-willing Ishii. A slam and a back senton crushes Ishii some more for a near-fall, as SANADA came in to try and keep up the momentum. Ishii just laughs it off (well, he would if he laughed), before finally issuing a retort.

A powerslam from Ishii gets him free as EVIL tags in, but Ishii couldn’t quite get free to Okada, as he had to suplex EVIL before getting his chance. Okada’s a house afire with back elbows to EVIL, before he scored with a plancha on the outside. There’s a DDT from Okada back inside for a near-fall, before EVIL used the referee to confuse Okada ahead of a superkick. SANADA returns, but it’s still too soon for a Paradise Lock, as he instead went for a TKO… and rolled through into the lock. Except Okada still pushed free and caught him with a flapjack instead. A slam from Okada looks to be a prelude for the top rope elbow, but SANADA’s up and comes back with a double leapfrog and a dropkick. A back suplex followed from SANADA for a near-fall on Okada, as a Skull End attempt looked to follow… but Okada slipped out and retaliated with a Cobra clutch.

SANADA rolls free, but runs into a tombstone attempt as we counter, counter and counter into Okada’s neckbreaker slam. Another comeback from SANADA sees him land a springboard missile dropkick from the apron, as Ishii and EVIL tag back in next, trading blows as we led into Darkness Falls for a near-fall. Ishii escapes Everything is EVIL to land a backdrop suplex, but SANADA’s back to help double-team as Ishii took a clothesline for a near-fall. They continue with a Magic Killer, but Ishii escaped as Okada returned in with a dropkick, allowing Ishii to wallop EVIL with a clothesline for another near-fall.

EVIL escapes a brainbuster, but SANADA returned to help catch Ishii with a Magic Killer as Ishii looked spent… with a Scorpion Deathlock in the middle of the ring trapping the former Rev Pro champion. Ishii tries to hand-walk his way to the ropes, but he’s dragged back into the middle of the ring, and with SANADA holding Okada in a Skull End, it was only a matter of time as the referee ended up waving the match off as Ishii couldn’t fight it any longer. We continue the streak of these LIJ/CHAOS outings standing out on the cards, and the advantage is firmly on LIJ’s side going into Saturday’s singles matches. ***½

NEVER Openweight Championship: Taichi vs. Jeff Cobb (c)
Taichi didn’t come alone for this, as he had Yoshinobu Kanemaru and TAKA Michinoku in his corner.

Taichi does his usual stalling as he built up to an attempted cheapshot… which Cobb doesn’t even register. Instead, Cobb shows off his athletic prowess by taking Taichi into the ropes for a leapfrog and a dropkick,before Taichi used Miho Abe as a human shield to prevent a dive. Kanemaru tries to offer some interference, but he’s just taken into the guard rails while Taichi uses the mic stand… as for the ref, I have no bloody idea.

We eventually see that it was Miho Abe who distracted the ref, as Taichi took shortcuts, throwing him into the English commentary table, before using a camera cable to choke Cobb with. Back in the ring, it’s more of the same: Taichi standing on Cobb’s back, keeping the pace low… but Cobb manages to power back in, catching Taichi on the top rope for a stalling superplex. A Samoan drop followed, as did a standing moonsault… but Taichi rolled away as he began to put some distance between himself and Cobb.

An attempted powerbomb on Cobb is blocked, in spite of some Kawada-style kicks, as Cobb just back body drops his way free. A buzzsaw kick from Taichi finds its mark for a near-fall before Chris Charlton lost his mind over Taichi’s tear-away trousers… but Cobb avoids a superkick and resumes being a monster as he absorbs kicks from Taichi. Taichi increases the frequency of those kicks, which ultimately get caught and turned into a neat fallaway slam, only for Taichi to come right back with a boot to the face. The Stretch Plum looked to follow, but Cobb rolls free before he looked for a Tour of the Islands… only for “Dangerous T” to haul him up into a Saito suplex instead.

From there, it’s the Stretch Plum, which Taichi released as he tried to go for a pin instead… but Cobb was still too strong. He’s right back with a gutwrench suplex which he rolled through into a piledriver, but Cobb can’t roll over and make the cover, and instead he picks up Taichi… who hooked the ropes to avoid a Tour of the Islands. A second wind sees Taichi land an Axe bomber and an enziguiri, but he too can’t make the cover. It’s Cobb who has the next burst of energy though, but he can’t hit the Tour of the Islands as a roll-up got Taichi a near-fall… as did a Gedo clutch from a low blow. He followed that up with a superkick and the Black Memphisto (Air Raid Crash), there’s an upset? I’m used to Taichi being low and slow on these big matches, to the point where I can’t call this a stinker… and I guess we’re back to where we were last September. ***

IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship: Taichi Ishimori vs. Dragon Lee (c)
The pre-match video package had a lot of references to Hiromu Takahashi, which’ll get everyone expecting his return… something heightened when Dragon Lee came out with a Kamaitachi mask.

We started with the pair going to the mat, as Ishimori looked to work over Dragon Lee’s head and arm in the opening exchanges. There’s leg sweeps aplenty as we built into a stand-off, but not for long as Ishimori worked over the champion in the corner, building up to an attempted baseball slide German, which Dragon Lee avoided as he came back in with a ‘rana, taking Ishimori outside for a tope con giro.

Back inside, a dropkick from Dragon Lee takes Ishimori into the corner for a Shibata-ish dropkick, before he went to work on Ishimori’s left knee. The challenger comes back as he lifts Dragon Lee into the corner, and an eventual Tree of Woe for a dropkick, after he’d tried to unmask him once again. A knee drop from Ishimori head into a headlock takeover as a chinlock looked to force a submission, before he opted to place Dragon Lee in the ropes for a baseball slide German suplex. Ishimori followed him out for an Orihara moonsault to the floor, before a wheelbarrow roll-up out of nowhere nearly got the win for Dragon Lee.

Ishimori comes right back in with a shotgun dropkick, taking the champion into the corner ahead of some running double knees, before a STO gave Dragon Lee some respite. Chops trap Ishimori in the corner, before an attempt at Desnucadora got countered into a crucifix bomb from Ishimori for a near-fall. Dragon Lee scores with a near-fall… then a one-handed powerbomb as he tried to wear down the taped-up back of the challenger. For some reason we only get the hard camera shot of Dragon Lee’s leaping ‘rana from the ring to the floor, taking Ishimori off the apron in the process, and he keeps the match on the outside… which backfired as Ishimori rebounded off the ropes and into an armdrag that sent the champion hard into the guard rails.

The double count-out is narrowly avoided as both men just make it back in in time. They trade more forearms and elbows to the head, which almost lay out Ishimori before he recovered… and resumed those strikes until a front kick had him back in a heap. Ishimori tries to recover, but has to backflip out of a German suplex… before he responded to an eventual German suplex with a Destroyer… only to run into a roll-up Falcon arrow as a breathless exchange had Fukuoka on their feet.

Dragon Lee tries to capitalise, taking Ishimori to the top rope and knocking him down for a Del Rio double stomp, driving his feet through the challenger for a near-fall. After a ‘rana, Ishimori’s right back in with a La Mistica and a crossface as he borrowed from Dragon Lee’s family, almost forcing a submission as he rolled the champion back into the middle of the ring just as he was about to get to the ropes.

Finally Dragon Lee gets a foot to the rope, but he can’t avoid a tombstone gutbuster as Ishimori gets another two-count as we pass the 25 minute mark. Dragon Lee mounts another comeback with a reverse ‘rana, then a German suplex, before a running knee leaves Ishimori laying again… but it’s still not enough! Desnucadora’s next… and that’s finally enough! Dragon Lee gets the win after a heck of a match, albeit one in front of a crowd that was relatively quiet throughout. ****½

After the match, Dragon Lee celebrated with the Kamaitachi mask… and dedicated his win to Hiromu Takahashi. Like the rest of us, Dragon Lee is still waiting for Hiromu’s return as he gets showered in tickertape to end the show.

The story of night one of Wrestling Dontaku has been much like the road-to shows. On the whole, a one-match show, as the matches that had a pay-off here went really well; the stuff we’re still building to was tantalising, but the matches behind storylines that had already delivered just felt like a waste of time, particularly if (like us) you’ve sat through everything they’ve streamed on this tour. Still, let’s not end on a downer – Dragon Lee and Taiji Ishimori was an absolute banger of a match… it’s just a shame the crowd could have been much hotter.